It was encouraging to see a number of veteran public officials attend a three-hour seminar held by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office in Youngstown the other day.
There were a few private citizens there, too, but not enough. Because while the press does its best to hold government officials to account when they operate or try to operate behind closed doors, an informed and vigilant public can be just as effective.
It’s one thing for an official to disagree with a reporter over whether or not the state’s Sunshine Law apples to a specific situation. It’s a little different if the challenge comes from a voter, or five voters or 20 voters on whom that official must rely for support.
Those attending the session this week at the Newport Branch of the library in Youngstown heard Jeff Clark, principal assistant attorney general, say that when it comes to legitimate record requests, it’s easier to comply than fight. And it’s cheaper, too, because Ohio law allows citizens to sue for damages and recover legal fees when elected or public officials flout the law.
DeWine continues a tradition of Ohio attorneys general in attempting to educate public officials and the public about the state’s Sunshine laws, a body of law that has evolved over the last 40 years to cover public meetings and open records.
Anyone eager to educate themselves on the law can go to the attorney general’s Website. The office periodically updates its “Sunshine Laws Manual or “Yellow Book,” which explains the law in layman’s terms and answers questions. It can be easily downloaded.
The office also created a model open records policy that local governments can adopt or use as a guide for their own open records policies.
State law now requires every elected official to attend a Sunshine seminar during his or her term. If they comply and if the entity has adopted a Sunshine policy, there is no legitimate reason to run afoul of the law.
Unfortunately, too many elected officials continue to view what should be public records as their property and believe that they can meet to discuss business outside of the public eye.
Clark advised elected officials in Youngstown to “go above and beyond” what they may think is their duty in complying with open government requests.
That’s another way of saying what has been Ohio law for more than 40 years. The preamble to the state’s Sunshine law says specifically that it should be “liberally construed” toward openness. In other words, when in doubt, err on the side of being open. Those public officials who choose to err on the side of keeping the public in the dark are, to mix metaphors, playing with fire.